In Netflix’s ‘Pain Hustlers,’ greed reigns over the employees at Zanna Therapeutics as they push the boundary of what cannot be considered wholly illegal to sell a drug named Lonafen. While the story mainly follows Emily Blunt’s Liza Drake, it isn’t until Pete Brenner brings her into the fold that the events are truly put into motion. Much like most people around him, Brenner is solely focused on rising up the corporate ladder and making as much money as possible.
This can only be done if his company makes money, so he dedicates himself to doing whatever it takes to ensure that Lonafen sells as much as possible. While Brenner’s greed might disgust viewers, it also puts a mirror in front of them, making them wonder what they would do if they were in his place. Here’s everything about the man who actually was in Brenner’s position.
Pete Brenner is Loosely Based on Insys Therapeutics’ Former VP of Sales
‘Pain Hustlers’ finds its source material in the article of the same name by Evan Hughes, which mentions Alec Burlakoff and his contribution to the growth of Insys Therapeutics and the sale of Subsys. Burlakoff was known for being charming and ruthless about pursuing his goals, which mainly focused on getting doctors to sign in on a deal that would be lucrative for both ends. He was known to have a keen sense of holding a conversation and turning it in his favor, which made him quite good at his job as the head of sales.
Burlakoff started working in sales at a pharma company called Eli Lilly, where he sold Prozac and other products. He became “Rookie of the Year” but was later embroiled in a lawsuit when the company fired him in 2002. He was under investigation for sending unsolicited pills to patients by mail. In turn, Burlakoff claimed that the practice was approved by the management. The case was eventually settled, and it led Burlakoff to another job at Johnson & Johnson and later at Cephalon, where he sold Actiq and Fentora for a year before he joined the Insys team.
Once at Insys, Burlakoff quickly made a name and received one promotion after another. He started as a head of sales for the Southeast region but soon climbed the ladder from VP of Sales to Senior VP of Sales. His success wasn’t without a show of work. Reportedly, it was after his arrival that things turned out for Insys, which saw disappointing sales numbers for Subsys in the early months following its launch. Allegedly, it was Burlakoff who came up with the idea of the “speakers program” and the idea of bribing the doctors to prescribe more Subsys to their patients.
In ‘Pain Hustlers,’ Chris Evans’ Pete Brenner plays almost the same role in the sales of Lonafen and turning things around for Zanna. The filmmakers have changed the name of the character in the movie because there are certain aspects of the story that don’t align with Burlakoff’s life. Giving a fictional name to the character allows the filmmakers to keep the space for adding things for dramatic purposes and leaning into the fiction territory. So, it’s safe to say that Burlakoff merely inspires Brenner’s character.
Alec Burlakoff Has Turned His Life Around
Once things came crashing down at Insys, Alec Burlakoff was caught in the middle of it. He cooperated with the authorities and spent 26 months in federal prison after pleading guilty to one count of racketeering conspiracy. He was released in January 2022. Now, he works as a sales trainer, a coach, a public speaker, and an author. He lives in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida. He also acted as a project consultant for Netflix in 2022, presumably for ‘Pain Hustlers.’
Talking about his time at Insys, Burlakoff confessed that he didn’t think about the patients and the addictions that the abuse of Subsys was leading to. “I imagined that I was selling a widget,” he said, revealing that he targeted doctors other than oncologists to sell Subsys. He said that they had to be “ruthless” in targeting people, especially those in distress.
Burlakoff revealed that he became a pharma sales rep despite the disapproval of his family because he wanted to make just as much money as his father and brother. He went into the field of pharma because he thought he’d be able to help people, but it soon became clear to him that this was a cutthroat world where he needed to do whatever it took to get the job done. He would direct the sales reps about the kind of doctors they should target and the tricks they could go for to close the deal. “I can tell you at Insys Therapeutics that my direction would be, ‘Do not target an analytical doctor with this drug,’” he said.
While it made him a lot of money and really pushed his career forward, it did make him “lose a piece of his soul each day.” He confesses that his greed and looking up to people in high-level positions made him stay rather than walk out because his job was compromising with his morals. In his mind, he’d found justifications for his actions and believed he’d done nothing wrong, but in time, he had to accept the truth and the part he played in all of this.